Gluten Free: All it’s cracked up to be?

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Written By

Rhea Dali

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Expert Reviewed By

Dr. Lauryn Lax, OTD, MS

Dr. Lauryn, OTD, MS is a doctor of occupational therapy, clinical nutritionists and functional medicine expert with 25 years of clinical and personal experience in healing from complex chronic health issues and helping others do the same.

Gluten Free Diet 1 | Gluten Free: All It'S Cracked Up To Be?

 

Gluten-Free-Diet

 

Gluten-free is all the rage right now.

 

Think up any food, or food-like product, you enjoy: From pizza, to cereal, cookies, bread, crackers, and pasta—and there is now a gluten-free option on shelves in the grocery store. Many restaurants even have their own gluten-free menus and you can easily tell your waiter you are gluten-free, and more than likely they will accommodate you.

 

Oh man, look at how healthy we are!

 

But…don’t think so fast.

 

‘Gluten-free’ is not necessarily a ‘buffer’ for improved health.

 

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Like the person who shops at Whole Foods and walks out with grocery bags full of organic chocolate pudding, organic macaroni and cheese, and organic cocoa puff cereal…eating gluten-free can mean many things (the same thing goes for: ‘organic’).

 

 

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Recently, I consulted with a mom who has integrated a gluten-free based diet in her son’s nutrition at home, replacing Frosted Mini Wheats with Chex cereal; Goldfish snack crackers with Nut Thins (gluten-free crackers); flour tortillas with corn tortillas; and spaghetti noodles with gluten free noodles.

 

While her son is not consuming ‘gluten’ in his diet, so to speak, he is simply replacing many processed, food-like products for other processed, food-like products.

 

This scenario is all too common in the beliefs and implementation surrounding a gluten-free diet, and spurred me to shed some light on the realities of ‘gluten-free.’

 

Here are a few common myths—and some clarification—about going gluten-free.

 

Myth 1: Gluten-Free is ‘Healthier’

 

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‘Gluten-free’ foods can be just as processed, poor fat (hydrogenated fats) and sugar-laden as many other traditional products on the shelves. Additionally, by choosing to eat many gluten-free products (such as crackers, breads, pastas, etc.), you may actually be missing out on some key crucial nutrients in your diet that you could be getting from more veggies, fruits, protein, essential fatty acids and root starches (sweet potatoes, squashes, etc.). If an ingredient list is longer than 5-6 ingredients, with names of things you cannot even pronounce, you may want to think twice about the benefits of that choice.

 

Myth 2: Gluten is evil

 

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Pop question: What is gluten?

 

Can you define it, without necessarily listing what gluten is in? (such as “gluten is in bread, pasta and cereal”…but what is it exactly?).

 

I couldn’t until I did a little more research.

 

In short: Gluten is a sticky, water-soluble protein that is found in many different grains (such as wheat, rye, barley, etc). Additionally (a little known fact), grains like corn, rice and oats also have similar proteins (to gluten) that cause problems over time. When consumed, gluten and these similar grain-based proteins break down the microvilli in your small intestine, eventually letting particles of your food leech into your blood stream (a lovely term called “leaky gut syndrome”) causing allergies, digestive disturbances or autoimmune problems.

 

 

Myth 3: Gluten-Free Grains are Better Options

 

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Rice, beans, corn-flour, tapioca, quiona, sprouted grains—there are plenty of other ‘gluten-free’ options to appease your palate. After all…you need grains in some form or fashion, right?

 

You’ve heard it before: “Grains give you necessary fiber!”…“Grains provide essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients”…“They are low-fat!”

 

Where did you learn these beliefs?

 

  • Commercials and advertising.
  • The labels on many packaged products in the grocery store (cereal boxes, bread bags, cereal bar boxes, etc.).
  • Maybe even a ‘nutrition lesson’ in school or your doctor’s office (The FDA’s food pyramid claims we need 6-11 sources of grains each day).

 

However, a bit more digging into grains reveals that they may not be as ‘nutrient dense’ or necessary, as marketed or believed (even if they are ‘gluten-free’).

 

How come?

 

  • Phytic Acid

First, grains contain Phytic Acid (an anti-nutrient; i.e. a ‘mineral blocker and nutrient stripper’) that prevents absorption of calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc. Phytic Acid is found in the bran of all grains, and also the outer coating of beans, seeds and nuts. The consumption of Phytic Acid binds minerals in our digestive tract, making them less available to our bodies. Phytates also reduce the digestibility of starches, proteins, and fats.

 

  • Leaky Gut Syndrome

Secondly, as mentioned above, gluten and similar grains (i.e. gluten’s gluten-free counterparts) break down the microvilli in your small intestine, eventually letting particles of your food leech into your blood stream when overloaded (a.k.a. “leaky gut syndrome”) causing a host of issues, from allergies, digestive disturbances, behavior disturbances, ADD and ADHD, and/or autoimmune problems.

 

  • Hormone Imbalances

Thirdly, grains (even gluten free grains) can cause hormone imbalances and blood sugar disregulation when consumed in the quantities many Americans consume them in. When you eat rice, oats, ‘sprouted bread’ and even quinoa, regularly, it calls for a spike in insulin production, just like consuming ‘regular’ breads, pastas and cereals does. Insulin transports glucose throughout your bloodstream (anatomy lesson reminder: glucose=sugar). While we definitely need glucose for energy, when there is excess glucose in the bloodstream (i.e. glucose not being used for energy), this spurs the production of additional cortisol and adrenaline hormones in order to handle the extra load (thus: predisposing a person for hormonal imbalances, such as adrenal fatigue and poor blood sugar handling abilities).

 

  • America’s “Health” History

Lastly, if gluten-free grain options are ‘better options’…then why is America’s health still waning? Check out this interesting excerpt from a gal named Katie, also known as the “Wellness Mama” with some thought-provoking insights on this:
With the dawn of the roller mill in 1872, flour became accessible to virtually everyone, though the bran and germ were stripped out, leaving very little of the minuscule nutritional value the grain had to begin with. Surely though, as grains are the center of our diet, an important source of fiber, and a low-fat staple, the general health of the American population must have dramatically increased from this novel invention? Or not…

 

In the last 130 years of increased grain consumption, chronic disease rates have skyrocketed, fertility has fallen and the average weight of the population has steadily risen. The more consumption of grains rose, the more fertility rates fell. Research from the University of Missouri, states the average sperm count of American males has dropped 50% since the 1930s. To add insult to impotence, testicle size tends to have an inverse relationship with grain consumption.

Hmm….

 

Bottom line?

 

“Gluten-free” is not necessarily a bad thing. But ask yourself, where are you getting the majority of your nutrients from?

 

Is it in a box, a package or freezer?

 

Or is it from real food?

 

While many people can tolerate grains—of varying sorts; and there can be a time and place for grains in your diet (For instance: I know many athletes who benefit from incorporating rice or oats in their daily routine for recovery and training purposes; Often times, especially for weight gain purposes as well, grains can be beneficial mediums for getting extra energy in; And, in moderate amounts—a “lil’ dirt” never hurt…such as a sushi night at Uchi or steel cut rolled oats on a cold morning), on balance, you will get a ‘bigger bang’ for your nutrition buck (vitamins, minerals, digestion, anti-inflammation) by choosing real foods more often from various veggies, fruits, root starches (potatoes, squashes) as your primary sources of carbohydrates.

 

Above ALL, food is not a game of perfection either! No matter what you do, aim for 80/20, or 70/30 with your food choices. Don’t get so caught up in the ‘can’ts’ and ‘cannots’ or ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots.’

 

Sustainability people.

 

Not short-lived fads here.

 

Balance.

 

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